Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

From Criminals to Survivors: Recognizing Domestic Sex Trafficking as Violence against Women in the District of Columbia

Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

From Criminals to Survivors: Recognizing Domestic Sex Trafficking as Violence against Women in the District of Columbia

Article excerpt


Macy came from an unstable background and met an older man who promised her love and safety.1 After providing Macy with a place to stay, the man threatened to leave her if she did not engage in commercial sex.2 Exposed and under the coercion of her trafficker, Macy3 spent months meeting men in hotel rooms in exchange for money4 trouble with her trafficker'.5 Ultimately, the police failed to recognize that she needed assistance and released her, notwithstanding the bruises covering her body as she sat in the police station answering questions.6 Despite her entrapment in the commercial sex industry, Macy was afraid of legal consequences and of her trafficker retaliating if she asked the police for assistance.7 When the police arrested Macy in another sting operation, they threatened to jail her unless she testified against her trafficker. Macy's story is not an isolated incident.

Survivors of sex trafficking,8 like Macy, constantly face the risk of arrest.9 While many individuals qualify as survivors of trafficking under federal law, they are not treated in such a way.10 Instead, countless survivors are charged at the state or local level, where they are labeled as "prostitutes," "criminals," and/or "defendants," and face fees, jail time, and the numerous collateral consequences of having a criminal record.11

This Comment argues that the District of Columbia's (hereinafter "D.C.") treatment of human trafficking survivors by labeling them "prostitutes" and criminalizing them, fails to afford survivors the resources that should be guaranteed to survivors of violence against women under federal law.12 Part II of this Comment outlines the Violence Against Women Act, the federal laws that relate to sex-trafficking, and D.C.'s response to and criminalization of prostitution.13 Part III argues that D.C.'s criminalization of survivors violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and that federal laws should be applied in cases where sex trafficking survivors are charged with crimes that stem from their trafficking background.14 Part III further asserts that even if D.C. is not in violation of federal law, its pretrial diversion program treats survivors as criminals and fails to provide them meaningful services.15 Based on this injustice, D.C. should enact a vacatur statute, allow for sex trafficking as an affirmative defense, and improve its safe harbor law.16 Part IV recommends that D.C. legislature enact statutorily mandated diversion programs.17 Part V concludes by reiterating that sex trafficking is a form of violence against women, and survivors of sex trafficking who are arrested for prostitution or related criminal charges in D.C. should be afforded access to vacatur laws and trauma-informed diversion programs.18

I. Background

A.Violence Against Women and Sex Trafficking

The term "violence against women" is an umbrella term frequently used to describe various types of gender-based violence.19 "Violence against women" refers to incidents or acts that manifest the systemic-inequality in power relations between men and women.20 This inequality allows for power dynamics of coercion and control over women.21 Incidents of violence against women can be physical in nature, such as physical or sexual assaults, or they can be verbal or psychological.22 Furthermore, "violence against women" is violence that occurs in either private or public spheres.23 Understood in this way, sex trafficking is a type of violence against women.24

People often think that domestic or intrastate sex trafficking does not exist because of misconceptions that trafficking requires interstate transportation.25 However, to the contrary, sex trafficking does not require any movement across borders.26 In the United States, an individual may be charged with sex trafficking when a person:

[K]nowingly. . . recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides, obtains, advertises, maintains, patronizes, or solicits by any means a person; knowing . …

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